Mario Kart hangs over the precipice of chaos. With weapons that can change positioning in a heartbeat, racing in this enduring franchise often takes a backseat to the item-flinging festivities. It's a tenuous position, and each iteration has dealt with how to balance these two disparate components--the skill of driving and the randomness of items--in different ways. In Mario Kart 7, defensive items are as useful as their offensive counterparts, and because of this tweak, your skill behind the wheel is the most important factor in determining a winner. Knowing that deft steering is the key to winning makes this latest edition engrossing. Although the total package feels lacking compared to more robust previous entries, the racing is as good as it has ever been, and that's what pushes you to take one more lap around the mushroom kingdom.
The structure in Mario Kart 7 has remained unchanged from its many predecessors. Grand Prix races in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc difficulties are available from the beginning, and you unlock mirror variants if you prove your worth in the initial offering. There are 32 tracks split evenly between new creations and returning favorites, with the retro versions revised to incorporate the new features introduced in this latest iteration. If you found yourself breezing through the single-player activities in previous games, then you should be glad to find a ramped-up difficulty in Mario Kart 7. Computer drivers are merciless in both their item usage and driving tactics, smartly taking tricky shortcuts or blocking your attempts to land shells on their noggins, which forces you to up your own skill if you're going to come out on top. The rubber banding that previously snatched victory from you at the last second has been drastically toned down in Mario Kart 7, so you finally feel as if you're in control of your own destiny. There is still one strange quirk, though: Your time is no longer recorded so you won't know just how narrowly you won (or lost).
A handful of new additions help separate Mario Kart 7 from its forebears. Kart customization gives you an opportunity to tinker with parts before each race. Whichever chassis, tires, and hang glider you choose affects your attributes, and it takes a bit of experimentation and inventiveness to decide which combination is best for you. You gain access to new gear by collecting coins sprinkled liberally around each track, though the coins have more than one purpose. In a call back to Super Mario Kart, the more coins you're carrying, the faster your driver's top speed, which adds more strategy in how you handle turns. Do you go slightly out of your way for a couple of extra coins? Do you risk falling in a pit? It's a smart addition that makes you keep your eyes peeled for flashes of golden yellow, giving you even more to think about while you're navigating hairpin turns and avoiding deadly shells.
Although some of those those elements have appeared in previous games in some form or another, the hang glider is new. When you leap off a blue launchpad, your kart automatically sprouts magnificent wings until you touch back down. At first, this seems like a shallow gimmick, but after you experiment with what you're capable of once airborne, you realize just how much potential this new ability grants you. Once again, quick decision making is important. You can avoid the chaos happening below you if you stay safely in the clouds, and there are coins to collect as well. In some courses, tricky shortcuts are even available for those who have a daredevil's mentality. But other times, you may want to land as quickly as possible. Maybe there are item boxes below or boost pads, so hanging in the air is ultimately hurting your chance at victory.
Choice is a huge factor in why Mario Kart 7 is so exciting. Not only does every moment have you striving to hit the best line possible, but you have to decide the best possible route as well. It's an enticing system that makes every lap around the track feel unique. This feeling is further cemented by another new element: underwater driving. Just like some sections may force you to fly above the clouds, others thrust you into the briny deep. Once submerged, your kart moves more slowly, and exaggerated physics prop you on two wheels around turns. As with the gliding segments, sometimes you want to be underwater, where coins, item boxes, and shortcuts are hidden, whereas other times you want to circumvent this detour. You have to be quick and precise with your movements, and staying aboveground often requires you to tackle tricky turns, so there's a strong risk/reward element to contend with.
Excellent track design ensures that each of these elements is integrated in interesting ways. Shortcuts are present on almost every track, and figuring out not only where they're located but how to reach them requires you to thoroughly case the surroundings. But even when you realize what you have to do, getting there is hardly a piece of cake. Courses are littered with tight turns and deadly traps, continually pushing you to stay pointed the right way. Opponents can nudge you into the cavernous deep by either pelting you with items or slamming you with their karts, and the constant need to fight your foes along with the track creates a frenetic atmosphere that is exciting and rewarding. The retro tracks stand proudly next to the new so that no matter which you're on, you're engulfed in the experience. Seeing almost 20 years of tracks on display is a testament to how outstanding design stands the test of time. It doesn't matter if you're cruising down the newest iteration of Rainbow Road or the original from Super Mario Kart: the racing is fast, frantic, and always fun.
A revamped powersliding system does away with the exploitable snaking element from some of the previous entries. You earn a speed burst by drifting around turns. This is based on timing rather than moving the circle pad quickly back and forth, so you don't have to sprain your thumb to stay competitive. This style of drifting was introduced in Mario Kart Wii, and it eliminates the huge disparity that was present in Mario Kart DS between snakers and non-snakers. Now you can focus on getting the right line, which is a more fair solution. Unfortunately, there isn't an option to use the D-pad. Although the circle pad works well, steering isn't quite as responsive without a digital alternative. If you fancy yourself a real kart driver, a cockpit view puts you right in the action. In this perspective, you can move your kart by tilting the system, and this is a fun addition to the formula. Because you can't see your surroundings, it isn't as useful as the normal third-person view, but it's neat to experiment with.
Driving is key in Mario Kart 7, but that doesn't mean the battle elements have fallen by the wayside. Items have been rebalanced this time around to ensure the best driver can stay in first place once he or she reaches that position. A tanooki tail is the most important of the new items. This lets you bat away shells and other objects if they come too close to you, and you can even send other drivers into the pit if they're getting too feisty. The fireflower also works more as a deterrent than a formidable attack. This lets you quickly launch fireballs that don't do much damage but allow you to gain a bit of breathing room when someone comes too close. These are great additions to the franchise because they help shift the balance away from items and back to racing. However, the blue shell is still overpowered. There's almost no way to avoid this first-place-seeking missile, so it can feel cheap when you're blasted off the road with no chance to escape from it. Still, these moments are rare enough that things don't feel unfair.
Mario Kart 7 contains a cast of 17 characters, eight of which are available at the start. They each have their own attributes, so you have to carefully decide if you want the quickness of Shy Guy or the heft of Rosalina. Having a wide assortment of characters to select from is certainly welcome, though the unlockable cast is fairly weak. Longtime fishing fan Lakitu makes his first appearance as a driver, and getting him off his cloud and into a kart is certainly novel, but most of the other characters you earn don't have the same appeal. Wiggler and Honey Queen look downright strange trying to fit into a kart (like Petey Piranha before them), and Metal Mario isn't even a real character. At least there aren't any baby variants this time around, nor do you have to put up with creepy female versions of male staples (Toadette, anyone?), but it's still a lackluster assortment of individuals.
Also disappointing is the brevity of the single-player activities. In Mario Kart DS, there was a mission mode that gave you more to do outside of the standard Grand Prix. These mini challenges had you driving through gates, collecting coins, defeating bosses, and engaging in other kart-based shenanigans and gave legs to the games when you couldn't round up friends to play. That feature has been unceremoniously axed in Mario Kart 7, which makes for a weaker overall package. Thankfully, there are so many unlockables to earn that you can play by your lonesome for hours before you see everything, but that doesn't make up for the removal of an entire mode. Battle mode is available in single and multiplayer, but it feels too similar to the battle mode in previous games to make it an exciting alternative to the Grand Prix. The racing is still extraordinarily fun in Mario Kart 7, but a little extra content would have gone a long way toward making this feel special.
As in previous games in the series, Mario Kart 7 is at its best when you play against human opponents rather than the inhuman AI. Up to eight players can take part, either locally or online, and you can share your game with others if they don't have a copy of their own. Going head-to-head with a group of hard-driving competitors is loads of fun, and things are so volatile that you can play for hours and still see new permutations. Competition is at its best in local play, when people can yell at each other or high-five after a great run, but online serves admirably if you don't have friends handy, though it's not without faults. Against random individuals, you're limited to one-off races. Because you stay in the same room, you can choose to play again, but being kicked out of a race has a disjointed feeling because there's no cumulative record of results. This feeling can be alleviated in the communities feature. Here, you create your own group, determine the speed, and decide which items you want to use. It's a neat addition, but if you want others to join you, they have to enter a code. It's a shame you can't just search for like-minded individuals and join their community. Once you start racing, things are great, but the infrastructure could use some work.
Mario Kart 7 contains the same framework that has existed in the franchise for years but has enough tweaks to the formula to stave off that stale feeling. The new additions, such as hang gliding and kart customization, should become permanent staples, and rebalanced items remove the feeling that you were unfairly robbed of victory. From a racing perspective, this is the best entry yet in the long-running series, and excellent track design pushes you to be inventive and smart in how you drive. However, the online structure has a few notable issues, and the removal of the mission mode is a big disappointment. Despite some problems, Mario Kart 7 is another explosive entry in the franchise.